Facebook raises $150 million more to cash out employees

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FacebookFacebook has almost finished raising $150 million in capital, in an extraordinary move by the company to buy out shares of hundreds of regular employees.

Hundreds of the Palo Alto, Calif.’s employees have now toiled at the company for more than two years, and many have worked three to five years. Increasingly, some have become restless, and would like to cash in on the huge value they’ve created. Most employees were awarded several thousands of shares valued at far less than a dollar each. Now, by selling to those shares investors for a private market value of $10 each, employees can enjoy a nice windfall. According to our sources, the transaction will include the buying out of roughly 15 million common shares — thus equaling around $150 million total value.

Facebook declined comment on the financing.

The deal has not quite closed yet. But it’s another sign that large private companies like Facebook are desperately seeking ways to find “liquidity” for their employees — especially now that the IPO market remains difficult, in particular for unprofitable companies.

Because of the size of the round, Facebook’s existing investors — Accel, Greylock, Founders Fund and several others — found it a stretch to supply the full amount of capital. We’re hearing the final part of the deal is being sold to new Asian investors.

Speculation about Facebook raising cash has swirled for several months, but most reports have misunderstood the reason why Facebook wanted to do so. Some outsiders claim the social networking company needs the cash to cover high storage and server costs, now that more than 200 million users are sharing photos at an increasing rate. But the company has constantly rejected such arguments, and now our sources are corroborating that.

The company declined to comment specifically on the fundraising, or the amount. Spokesman Larry Yu confirmed the existence of a Facebook common stock sale program, which lets employees sell up to 20 percent of their common share holdings, but he wouldn’t comment on any other details. “Facebook is a private company, so as a matter of policy, we don’t typically share details about our financial plans or comment on rumor and speculation,” he said, using a prepared statement. The company delayed the program in October, but we’re hearing the program will resume once this latest funding is finalized, which should happen very soon.

Before this, the company raised more than 400 million. It also raised debt of at least $100 million, much of that coming last year, and most of it in the form of a lease line to buy servers.

There’s no denying the company faces significant costs in covering photo-sharing costs. However, over the past six months, the company dedicated a crack team of three engineers to drive down the costs considerably. The initiative, called Haystack, replaced off-the-shelf storage products — which contained a lot of “head room” costs — with a proprietary architecture that shrunk the company’s computing costs to what really mattered. There’s also no sign the company is holding back from rolling out new high-bandwidth initiatives. It’s about to roll out a new live video chat feature, according to a report by AllFacebook (Update: We’ve since heard from another source that, while this is video chat feature in testing, there are no current plans to launch it).

Yu said speculation last last year by TechCrunch about Facebook’s server costs were an “order of magnitude wrong:” He added: “There’s a perception that our costs are skyrocketing…But those costs are not as nearly as radical as people are beginning to report.” He said that if nothing were to change at all, the company is on a “clear path to be cash-flow positive in 2010.” This is possible given Facebook’s cash in the bank, its managing of infrastructure costs and growth of its business, he said.

The company has repeated several times that it doesn’t need cash. Last month, the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg told Bloomberg: We could not be doing better financially … We might take money—but it doesn’t mean we need to.”

The buyout of employee shares in this latest transaction should be distinguished from the separate process of “secondary market” transactions, in which former Facebook employees sell their shares to accredited investors. Those transactions are commonplace. Until now, however, Facebook has asked its current employees to refrain from such sales.


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